Tokyo: Japan pushed Tuesday to lift a 24-year-old ban on commercial whaling, setting up a clash at talks in Florida with implacable foes opposed to its pursuit of the giant mammals.
Tokyo’s position against the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium risked new tensions with environmental campaigners and Australia, which has slapped Japan with a legal ultimatum unless it stops whaling.
“To gain the right to resume commercial whaling, what and how much can we give?” Japanese fisheries minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told reporters ahead of the closed-door talks among lower-level IWC negotiators in Florida.
“We will continue our patient negotiations,” he said, after last month hinting at a compromise that would see Japan scale back its troubled annual whale hunt in Antarctica if it can hunt commercially in its own waters.
At the weekend, militant anti-whalers heading back to Australia declared an end to this season’s pursuit of Japanese harpoon ships after a series of dramatic clashes in Antarctic waters.
Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society fleet, estimated that they had reduced the Japanese kill by up to half, costing the whalers between $70 and 80 million.
He said Sea Shepherd’s harassment techniques, which included the use of rancid butter-bombs, acoustic weapons, water cannon and a futuristic powerboat, had managed to block harpooning entirely for more than a month.
The IWC slapped a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. But Japan uses a loophole that allows lethal “scientific research” for its annual Antarctic hunts, while Norway and Iceland defy the ban entirely.
The three nations have since killed more than 30,000 whales.
The Florida talks come ahead of the annual IWC meeting in June, when nations will discuss a compromise proposal by the commission’s chair to permit commercial whaling but with the goal of gradually reducing the total catch.
“In the end, I will go to the IWC meeting (in June) and voice Japan’s position and make sure it will bear fruit,” Akamatsu told reporters.
Despite its scientific justification, Japan makes no secret of the fact that meat from slaughtered whales ends up in restaurants and shops. It maintains that whaling is a centuries-old tradition for the island-nation.
But Australia’s government is threatening to haul Japan in front of the International Court of Justice this year, calling anew Tuesday for an eventual end to all whaling except for indigenous subsistence hunts.
Japan has called the ultimatum “extremely regrettable”, and Akamatsu stood firm as negotiators from key nations were to meet through Friday in a resort town on Florida’s Gulf coast.
The compromise would bring the whaling of Japan, Norway and Iceland under IWC control, requiring that DNA samples be handed over for any “research” whaling, and aim to “significantly” reduce the catch over 10 years.
Cristian Maquieira, chairman of the 88-nation IWC, said the rancorous status quo “should not be regarded as an option” despite the angry reaction of Australia and New Zealand to Japan’s efforts to dilute the ban.
While not addressing the Antarctic, the IWC compromise would set up a whale sanctuary in the South Atlantic, where key players such as South Africa and Brazil oppose whaling.
Environmental groups have been scathing over the proposal, with Greenpeace arguing that it effectively undoes the landmark 1986 moratorium, which is credited with restoring stocks of the ocean giants.
“And after a 10-year period of doing this, there is absolutely nothing beyond that, so it just opens up the floodgates again,” said Phil Kline, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA.